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Air Force Academy Set to Bring in Bidders for New Visitors

Air Force Academy graduates throw their caps into the air as F-16 jets from the Thunderbirds make a flyover, at the completion of the graduation ceremony for the class of 2015, at the U.S. Air Force Academy, May 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
Air Force Academy graduates throw their caps into the air as F-16 jets from the Thunderbirds make a flyover, at the completion of the graduation ceremony for the class of 2015, at the U.S. Air Force Academy, May 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

Suitors to build and run a $20 million visitors center will gather at the Air Force Academy next month as the school moves ahead with the long-anticipated project.

Last week, the Air Force issued a request for qualifications seeking firms interested in the project, which would put a new visitors center near Interstate 25 and outside of the academy's security gates. Bidders will convene March 23 for a presentation of the proposed center.

The visitors center is part of City for Champions initiative -- four projects designed to attract tourists to the Pikes Peak region. The projects are funded, in part, by $120.5 million in sales tax money provided over 30 years under Colorado's Regional Tourism Act.

The Air Force has identified 57 acres where the visitors center could be located near the school's north gate.

The school wants the center near the interstate and outside the gates to boost the number of tourists who stop at the school. Now, stopping by the visitors center means passing through security for a 3-mile trek across the 18,500-acre campus.

Prior to 9/11, the academy was a big draw for tourism in the region, attracting as many as 700,000 visitors per year. Even as academy leaders relaxed post 9/11 security requirements to welcome tourism, traffic at the visitor center dropped to 200,000 people annually. Visitors to the academy over the past year have seen long backups at gates due to increased security measures tied to Islamic State threats.

To build the new center, the academy is relying on a partnership with business. The center will be built on academy land and leased to a firm that builds and operates it. The firm will be able to recover its expenses by selling food and gift shop items to tourists.

Building the new center, though, will take time and a lot of paperwork. In addition to an environmental impact statement, the firm that builds the center will be forced to comply with building design strictures that come with the academy's designation as a national historic landmark.

The academy hopes to have the center open by 2020.

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